If you follow the news, you’ve probably heard the term “helicopter parents” by now—these are the parents of high-school and college-age students who “micromanage” their children’s admissions efforts—and lives. But you may not know that the helicopter parent has a lesser-known sibling: the helicopter spouse, a kind, loving person with the best of intentions, who can actually hinder the application process rather than smoothing the way.
So, here are a few hints for spouses/partners who want to help their significant others succeed in the application process:
First—and perhaps most importantly—be sure that going back to school is what your partner really wants to do, not just what you think is best. It’s great to be encouraging, but if your partner is convinced that he or she is not yet ready to take this step, please listen. It’s sometimes tough to see clearly through the rose-colored glasses of love, so you may not have a completely realistic understanding of how ready your spouse really is to go ahead and apply.
Don’t take on too much of the planning—be supportive without taking over. It’s great to have a willing helper to organize paperwork, fill out transcript request forms, set up calendar reminders of milestones and deadlines, and surf the Internet for informative forum posts, but it’s best if you ask “how can I help?” rather than just presenting your handiwork as a fait accompli.
This is especially important if your partner is considering working with a consultant. Coming up with a list of possibilities is definitely something you can assist with, but the applicant should be the one to have that initial discussion with the consultant, to get a sense of what their working relationship will be like.
Whether your partner will be working on the applications alone or with a consultant’s assistance, try to keep your hands (and eyes!) off the essays in their early stages. It’s fine to toss around story ideas, brainstorm about long-term goals, or discuss the strong points of the various programs (that last point is actually one of the key areas where you can be most helpful!), but when the actual writing and editing process starts, step back for a while. It’s important to give your partner the chance to create “working drafts” of those essays from start to finish in his or her own voice before you start offering constructive criticism as your contribution to the editing/polishing process.
About that criticism… what your partner needs from you right now is clarity and honesty. This doesn’t mean that you should rip the drafts apart mercilessly—“tough love” can backfire! Yes, you need to speak up if you truly believe that an essay isn’t working, but being dismissive or unkind about a draft that someone has spent hours or even days working on is something like telling a new mother that her baby is ugly. In your feedback, address a few simple questions: Is the essay an appropriate response to the prompt? Is it interesting and engaging? Does it make sense? Does anything seem to be missing? Are there any grammar or punctuation problems?
Finally, remember that the application process can be just as emotionally draining as it is intellectually challenging. Your partner is being asked to write about unfamiliar topics in a style that may be completely unlike the writing he or she does in the workplace. This can lead to crises of confidence, feelings of “burnout,” and almost certainly some grumpy moments (try not to take those personally!). Offer your love and support, as always, but resist the urge to swoop in, helicopter-style, and fix everything—you can’t. I hesitate to use jargon-y words like “ownership,” since I’m always scolding my clients for putting stuff like that in their essays—but at the end of this crazy, time-consuming, life-sucking admissions season, no matter what the results, your partner will almost certainly feel an intense rush of satisfaction, knowing that he or she has truly owned this process.
If you want someone else, a professional, to guide your significant other, check out Accepted’s admissions editing and consulting.